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Rube Goldberg was an interesting guy.
His cartoons found fun and fanciful ways to solve simple problems in the most complex manner possible. Politicians are often his biggest acolytes.
Take food insecurity for children as an example. We’ve designed a bureaucratic edifice cooking up an alphabet soup of social programs — SNAP, WIC and NSLP — all overlapping in their effort to solve the identified problem.
It’s a Rube Goldberg welfare machine.
This week, to their credit, the Maine Legislature took a step to dismantle the monster. If the problem is kids going hungry, they decided that we should give kids food. It is elegant in its simplicity.
With strong bipartisan majorities, a bill is en route to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk that would enable every public school in Maine to provide breakfast and lunch to every student.
It doesn’t require hundreds of new state employees to stamp, check, cross-reference, and file paperwork. It doesn’t worsen top-down requirements from government dictating minutiae on how schools must implement the program.
It simply buys a couple meals for every Maine student on a school day.
Some on the right opposed the bill for understandable reasons. They argued that parents of sufficient economic means should be responsible for feeding their own children.
It is hard to disagree with that proposition. Kids are expensive buggers; that is one of the realities that should be considered before you embark on the adventure that is parenthood.
But the BDN Editorial Board had the right response. We don’t “means test” whether a yellow bus will pick kids up from home, nor do we force more well-to-do kids to buy their own textbooks while providing them free to those with less.
Yet, as Republican state Sen. Matt Pouliot wrote, providing meals to all students places them all on the same level. Kids can be brutal to each other; all of us who were once children can probably attest to that. Mocking and stigma could be directed to the “free lunch” kids. Avoiding that consequence led many kids to skip lunch all together.
Now, every kid will be a “free lunch” kid. It gives life to Jefferson’s famous pronouncement that “all men are created equal.”
In a time where people are hyper-focused on our differences — religious or ethnic backgrounds, political beliefs, sexual orientations or chosen professions — there is something heartening and grounding in addressing a problem belonging to all classes and cultures; we should feed hungry kids.
Maine is following in the footsteps of India, Finland, Sweden and Estonia. The data shows that school outcomes improve — and discipline problems decrease — when kids get enough to eat.
However, the “personal responsibility” argument of those Republicans in opposition to the bill shouldn’t be ignored. Other countries can offer examples there, as well.
A tradition in Japanese schools requires students to spend about 15 minutes cleaning up their school. Vacuuming, dusting, washing — regardless of class rank, status or station, everyone has a job to do and they do it together.
That may be the next idea the Legislature should consider. As a society, we can give back to kids to make sure — at least while they are in school — they have enough to eat. As a society, we can expect those students to learn that there really is no such thing as a “free lunch,” and teach them that they have a responsibility to give back to the larger community.
It’s all pretty simple. If kids are hungry, feed them. If their schools get dirty, have the students help clean up.
It isn’t the typical Rube Goldberg machine of government programs. For that reason, it just might work.